12 MPs' representations |
270. As part of our inquiry we considered a related
concern: the process by which Members of Parliament can make representations
about visa and asylum applications to the UK Border Agency, and
the response of the UKBA. We took evidence from the Parliamentary
Under-Secretary of State for Identity, Meg Hillier MP, on 3 March
2009. We also conducted a survey of all 646 MPs asking for feedback
on their experience of making representations in immigration and
asylum cases. In addition, we visited the MPs' hotline in Croydon.
Backlog and delays in processing
271. In 2006 it emerged that the Home Office
had a backlog of between 400,000 and 450,000 undecided asylum
application cases. The Minister for Identity acknowledged that
"there has been an historic backlog which we are well under
way to resolving. We are very clear that we will have it resolved
certainly by 2011".
The Chief Executive of the UK Border Agency, Lin Homer, updates
us at regular intervals with progress on clearing this backlog.
Her latest letter, dated 7 July 2009, reported that 197,500 cases
had been concluded to date.
272. The existence of this backlog means that
many of our constituents routinely receive letters advising them
that, in line with the UK Border Agency's target for clearing
the backlog, they can expect their case to be resolved by 2011.
The fact that many of them must wait for anything up to two years
more for a decision on their case, especially when they may have
been waiting years already, is unacceptable, and is often the
reason that MPs make representations to the UK Border Agency.
Options for representation
273. MPs wishing to make representation on an
immigration or asylum case have three possible avenues. First,
they can write to Visa Customer Services, which is part of the
Home Office International Group. They can do this by writing directly,
or by writing via the MPs' Liaison Unit based in Croydon, which
acts as an interface with Visa Customer Services. Second, they
can phone the UK Border Agency-run MPs' hotline in Croydon, and
speak to a dedicated hotline officer. Third, they can contact
the Home Office Minister's office directlyreplies to letters
received by the Minister's office are drafted by Visa Customer
274. For routine enquiries the UK Border Agency
advises MPs to contact Visa Customer Services, which aims to respond
to 95 per cent of all correspondence within 20 working days.
The Minister for Identity, Meg Hillier MP, encouraged Members
to use this avenue for routine enquiries.
For urgent enquiries, primarily those regarding compassionate
leave, MPs are advised to use the MPs' Hotline. The Hotline receives
around 22,500 enquiries per year. It also provides an email service.
It aims to reply to 95 per cent of all correspondence within 10
working days and 100 per cent within 20 working days.
MPs can also appeal in urgent cases directly to the relevant Home
Office Minister. Meg Hillier MP told us that, where there is a
"sticking point", Members should contact Ministers.
275. The Home Secretary has a wide discretion
when it comes to immigration and asylum matters, and in some aspects
of nationality applications. The immigration rules provide that
the Secretary of State may grant leave to enter or remain but,
equally, leave to enter or remain may still be refused if any
of the general grounds for refusal contained within Part 9 of
the Immigration Rules apply. In most instances, the discretion
is exercised within the Immigration Rulesgenerally by waiving
some part of the relevant rule or rules so that leave to remain
may be granted.
276. It is therefore open to MPs to raise cases
with Ministers if they wish them to review the initial decision
and/or step outside the rules to make a decision in a constituent's
favour. However, it is rare for a decision to depart entirely
from the rules set out in the Immigration Rules and published
policy documentsthe most exceptional compassionate circumstances
would usually have to be shown. Moreover, Ministers would not
normally intervene if an appeal was outstanding, and would be
unlikely to reverse a decision which had been through the appeals
process unless new and compelling information had become available.
Survey of MPs
277. 114 out of 646 MPs completed our questionnaire,
and a further five submitted comments only. A summary of the results
is annexed to this Report.
Overwhelmingly, MPs felt that the level of information they received
from UK Visasvia Visa Customer Serviceswas poor.
Of 112 respondents, 63 per cent rated the way their representations
were dealt with as 5 or lower on a scale of 1-10 where 1 is poor
and 10 excellent. Specific and repeated criticism centred on the
length of time taken to receive a response to representations,
poor initial decision-making by UK Border Agency staff, the use
of standardised paragraphs in responses, and the difficulty in
getting hold of UK Border Agency officials to discuss cases.
Speed of response
278. Glyn Williams of the UK Border Agency admitted
that it was "fair to say in terms of handing MPs' correspondence
that the performance of International Group has dipped in the
last 12 months. That sort of coincided with the move from UK Visas
into International Group".
He thought the Agency had been "slightly caught off guard"
and it was not hitting the 20-day target for 95 per cent of repliesin
fact, it was averaging 60 per cent in 20 days and 77 per cent
in 30 days. He did "not see why we cannot do much better
279. The Minister for Identity, Meg Hillier MP,
told us that Visa Services receives 48,000 letters a year on visa
cases, of which around two-thirds are from MPs.
Between them, she and the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration
dealt personally with 12,000 letters a year.
She thought that she alone probably signed 30 to 40 letters a
day. The Minister was insistent that she personally read the accompanying
documentation and case put forward by an MP when she received
280. The Minister noted that, amongst other measures,
the UK Border Agency was implementing an online tracking process
so that MPs could find out where their letters were in the system.
Glyn Williams noted that "we have established two visa sections
in King Charles Street [London]: one to handle work from Algiers;
and the other, which started a month ago, to handle some settlement
work from Pakistan. We are trialling the concept of whether we
can effectively decide cases in the UK as opposed to in locations".
Quality of response
281. Many MPs responding to our survey complained
that Refusal Notices were answered with standard word processed
paragraphs and that frequently specific individual or meritorious
circumstances were overlooked or disregarded. In fact, we have
regularly expressed concern about the lack of clarity in visa
Refusal Notices. In our recent Report, Monitoring of the UK
Border Agency, published on 12 January 2009, we concluded:
Based on our experiences as constituency MPs, and
from recent visits, including to visas offices in India and Bangladesh,
we have ourselves expressed concern about the length and unintelligibility
of visa refusal notices. We were pleased to learn that the Independent
Monitor has made similar criticisms about the indiscriminate use
of standardised paragraphs, and of unintelligible or obscure legal
Meg Hillier MP told us that "we do use standard
wording and there is a good reason for thatthere are 220
drafters in the immigration team and about 16 in Glyn Williams'
Decisions by Ministers
282. The Minister for Identity, Meg Hillier MP,
noted that not all MPs used direct appeal to a Minister as an
emergency last resort, as it was intended:
I am often approached by MPs who are approached by
the constituents with an issue around a visa where actually there
has never even been an appeal on the original application
have to get a balance between taking MPs' representations as seriously
as they deserve, without allowing everybody to circumvent the
She considered that there were "very few cases
where there is a reason for ministerial discretion and that would
be those difficult cases that were outside the rules"
and observed: "I would not think it appropriate for Ministers
to become an alternative appeal approach".
She later wrote to us that Ministerial interventions resulting
in overturn of a decision had happened on only two occasions recently,
both in January 2009.
283. We were concerned that, where MPs appealed
directly to Ministers, the information they provided was not always
passed on to officials elsewhere in the system. One example was
of a case of a disabled single mother and three daughters, who
were taken to an immigration detention centre even whilst the
case was under consideration by Home Office ministers following
representations from an MP.
Potential increase in representations
under the Points Based System
284. Given that the right of appeal will be replaced
by a paper-based administrative review under the Points Based
System, we asked the Minister for Identity, Meg Hillier MP, whether
she expected to see an increase in MPs' representations as a result
of the removal of appeal. She simply considered that "it
would be interesting to see how many people do try and then go
to their MP".
We consider that response a little complacent.
285. We were also concerned that the Minister's
absence on maternity leave would render the Home Office temporarily
short-staffed in responding to MPs, particularly in the context
of a likely increase in representations under the Points Based
System. Accordingly we wrote to the then Home Secretary, Jacqui
Smith MP, to enquire about cover arrangements. The then Home Secretary
informed us that Shahid Malik MP would pick up Meg Hillier's immigration
correspondence caseload, although Alan Campbell MP would take
on the role of correspondence champion. However shortly after
this Mr Malik stood down from his post with no person appointed
to cover his temporary absence.
286. We note the introduction of an online
case tracking system and dedicated account managers to respond
to MPs' representations in immigration and asylum cases. However,
too many MPs remain dissatisfied with the quality and speed of
response to their representations. It is clear from comments made
by MPs in response to our survey that officials are right to diagnose
the transfer of Visa Customer Services from the Foreign and Commonwealth
Office to the UK Border Agency as a turning point for a deterioration
in standards of service. Attention must be given by the UK Border
Agency to improving the speed of their service, and improving
significantly on the current performance of only responding to
60 per cent of MPs' representations within their
target time of 20 days.
287. On several previous occasionsincluding
in our recent Report, Monitoring of the UK Border Agency
(published on 12 January 2009)we have recommended in no
uncertain terms that visa Refusal Notices must refrain from using
standardised paragraphs or unintelligible jargon, and should instead
set out clearly and plainly the individual reasons for a refusal.
It is essential that precisely the same principles apply also
to responses to MPs' representations, which must address the specific
points and circumstances raised by MPs. They are currently failing
to do so.
288. Whilst we note the Minister for Identity's
efforts personally to read and respond to correspondence, it is
clear to us that no busy government minister could consider in
detail the 30 or 40 letters a day she confirmed that she received.
We were also concerned about a shortage of ministerial time available
to deal with MPs' representations given inadequate cover arrangements
made by the Government for the Minister for Identity's absence
on maternity leave, especially in the context of a likely increase
in MPs' representations with the right of appeal being removed
under the Points Based System.
289. We remain seriously concerned about the
scale of the backlog in processing historic asylum cases, the
consequence of which is that many of our constituents are being
advised that their case may not be concluded before 2011. Although
in our view MPs should appeal directly to ministers only as a
last resort, to ensure that ministers can give priority to the
most urgent cases, we entirely understand the frustration of many
MPs over the huge delays in processing cases which drives them
to appeal directly to ministers.
290. We consider that constituents' representations
to MPs, and MPs' representations to the UK Border Agency and ministers,
will increase under the Points Based System, since the system
contains no independent right of appeal against visa refusals.
This could lead to MPs and ministers becoming an alternative appeals
process, although it would be inappropriate for anyone to receive
preferential treatment simply as a result of an MP making representations.
We therefore recommend that the UK Border Agency must prepare
for an increase in representations, including by increasing the
capacity of the MPs' Hotline and Visa Customer Services, and by
liaising with MPs to advise them how best to advise constituents
refused visas under the new system.
291. The essence of dealing with MPs' representations
is the provision of good customer service to those who seek information
about their cases. Even UK Border Agency senior officials admit
that they can 'do much better'. We agree with them.
323 Q 42 (03/03/09) Back
Ev 252-253 Back
Ev 253 Back
Q 23 (03/03/09) Back
Oral briefing from UK Border Agency during Committee visit to
MPs' hotline in Croydon Back
Q 23 (03/03/09) Back
House of Commons Library, Standard Notes SN/HA/1634, Immigration:
Discretion outside the Rules, 26 June 2008, and SN/HA/3186,
Constituency casework: immigration, nationality and asylum,
14 January 2009. Back
Annex B [Summary of MP survey responses] Back
Q 12 (03/03/09) Back
Qq 12-13 (03/03/09) Back
Qq 19-20 (03/03/09) Back
Q 20 (03/03/09) Back
Qq 26-31 (03/03/09) Back
Q 2 (03/03/09) Back
Q 10 (03/03/09) Back
Home Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2008-09, Monitoring
of the UK Border Agency, HC 77, para 11 Back
Q32 (03/03/09) Back
Q 12 (03/03/09) Back
Q 39 (03/03/09) Back
Q 12 (03/03/09) Back
Ev 252 Back
Q 38 (03/03/09) Back
Q 25 (03/03/09) Back